Death of Cornelieus Castoriadis: Bourgeoisie pays homage to one of its servants

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The bourgeois press, especially in France, has made a certain amount of noise about the death of Cornelius Castoriadis. Le Monde referred to it in two successive issues (28-29 December and 30 December 1997) and devoted a full page to it under a significant title: 'Death of Cornelius Castoriadis, anti-marxist revolutionary'. This title is typical of the ideological methods of the bourgeoisie. It contains two truths wrapped around the lie that they want us to swallow. The truths: Castoriadis is dead, and he was anti-marxist. The lie: he was a revolutionary. To shore up the idea, Le Monde recalls Castoriadis' own words, "repeated until the end of his life ". "Whatever happens, I will remain first and above all a revolutionary".

And indeed, in his youth, he had been a revolutionary. At the end of the 1940s he broke with the Trotskyist "4th International" in company with a number of other comrades and animated the review Socialisme ou Barbarie (1). At this time SouB represented an effort, albeit confused and limited by its Trotskyist origins, to develop a proletarian line of thought in the middle of the triumphant counter-revolution. But in the course of the 1950s, under the impulsion of Castoriadis (who signed his articles Pierre Chaulieu, then Paul Cardan), SouB more and more rejected the weak marxist foundations on which it had been built. In particular, Castoriadis developed the idea that the real antagonism in society was no longer between exploiters and exploited but between "order givers and order takers". SouB finally disappeared at the beginning of 1966, hardly two years before the events of May 68, which marked the historic resurgence of the world-wide class struggle after a counter-revolution of nearly half a century. In fact, Castoriadis had ceased to be a revolutionary long before he died, even if he was able to maintain the illusory appearance of one.

Castoriadis was not the first to betray the revolutionary convictions of his youth. The history of the workers' movement is littered with such examples. What characterised him, however, is that he dressed his treason in the rags of "political radicalism", in the claim that he was opposed to the whole existing social order. We can see this by looking at an article written in Le Monde Diplomatique in response to his final book, 'Done and to be done', 1997.

"Castoriadis gives us the tools to contest, to build the barricades, to envisage the socialism of the future, to think about changing the world, to desire to change life politically... What political heritage can come from the history of the workers 'movement, when it is now obvious that the proletariat cannot play the role of motor force that marxism attributed to it? Castoriadis replies with a superb programme that combines the highest demands of human polity with the best of the socialist ideal.. .Action and thought are in search of a new radicalism, now that the Leninist parenthesis is closed, now that the police-state marxism of history has fallen into dust..."

In reality, this "radicalism" that makes highbrow journalists drool so much was a fig leaf covering the fact that Castoriadis' message was extremely useful to the ideological campaigns of the bourgeoisie. Thus, his declaration that marxism had been pulverised (The rise of insignificance, 1996) gave its "radical" backing to the whole campaign about the death of communism which developed after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes of the eastern bloc in 1989.

But the real test of Castoriadis' radicalism had already taken place in the early 80s, when under Reagan's leadership the western bourgeoisie launched a deafening campaign against the military threat of the "Evil Empire" of the USSR in order to justify an armaments drive unprecedented since the second world war. And it was precisely during this period that

Castoriadis published his book 'Facing war' where he tried to demonstrate that there was a "massive imbalance" in favour of Russia, "a situation that was practically impossible for the Americans to amend". What's more this "analysis" was frequently cited by Marie-France Garaud, an ideologue of the ultra-militarist right and mouthpiece in France for the Reaganite campaigns.

At the end of the 80s, reality demonstrated that Russian military power was actually vastly inferior to that of the US, but this didn't puncture Castoradis' self-importance or silence the journalists' praise for him. Neither was this new. From 1953-4, even before he openly abandoned marxism, Castoriadis developed a whole theory that capitalism had now definitively overcome its economic crisis (see 'The dynamic of capitalism' in SouB 120. We know what happened after this: capitalism's crisis returned with a vengeance in the late 60s. So when a pocket collection (Editions 10/18) of the works of Castoriadis was published in 1973, it missed out certain not very glorious writings, which allowed his friend Edgar Morin to say at the time: "Who today can publish without shame, indeed with pride, the texts that marked his political road from 1948 to 1973, if not a rare spirit like Castoriadis?" (Le Nouvel Observateur).

The same Edgar Morin (who today is a very important person, an adviser to the Minister of National Education in France) went further in the 30 December article published in Le Monde: Castoriadis was not only a "rare spirit" but a "Titan of the spirit" (front page title).

For us, the only thing in common between Castoriadis and the Titans of myth is that they were both Greek. In any case, Castoriadis has had the homage he deserved: the unrestrained praises of the "politically correct" bourgeois press.

F, 2/4/98.


(1) In 1960 a British group, Solidarity, inspired by Socialisme ou Barbarie and Castoriadis, was formed. Although claiming to have gone beyond the "traditional left", Solidarity was never able to break definitively with leftism, whether its Trotskyist or anarchist varieties. It was initially active in the extreme left of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; it defended the shop stewards against the leaders of the trade union apparatus; and it took an ambiguous position on the Vietnam war. Nevertheless, at a time when there were no organised forces of the communist left in Britain, Solidarity's proximity to certain class positions did attract elements looking for a revolutionary coherence, as well as providing a retirement home for burnt out Stalinists, Trotskyists, and anarchists. It was those genuinely seeking clarification who, freeing themselves from Solidarity's swamp of confusion, were able to connect with the historical left communist tradition and form Revolutionary Perspectives (now the Communist Workers Organisation) and World Revolution. But the appearance of these groups also marked the end of Solidarity's temporary relevance. The reappearance of the economic crisis of capitalism, the resurgence of the class struggle, and the sharpening of imperialist tensions brutally exposed the theories of Castoriadis, while the groups of the communist left were able to provide a coherent marxist framework for understanding them.

Solidarity's death was, however, long and lingering. In 1976 it was given a certain transfusion of blood by amalgamating with a split from the SPGB to become Solidarity for Social Revolution. By 1980 it had reformed itself to become plain Solidarity once again, but the contents of its journal became increasingly apolitical. But it could not escape politics: it proved unable to survive the exposure of Castoriadis as an adviser to western imperialism, and finally expired in 1988.

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